‘True Detective’ and the Unadaptable Nic Pizzolatto

We try to figure out what, if anything, Jeremy Saulnier’s departure from ‘True Detective’ means for the future of the show.
By  · Published on April 3rd, 2018

We try to figure out what, if anything, Jeremy Saulnier’s departure from ‘True Detective’ means for the future of the show.

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on Nic Pizzolatto. That seems to be the common sentiment shared by True Detective fans after it was announced that director Jeremy Saulnier had exited Season 3 due to creative differences. Years after critics and audiences combed through interviews and commentary for further proof of the rumored bad blood between Pizzolatto and his director, we find ourselves once again missing a major talent from a highly anticipated television show and wondering if perhaps Hollywood’s wunderkind showrunner may be incapable of sharing the spotlight. Insert your joke of choice regarding time and flat circles.

Despite True Detective‘s unexpected renewal for Season 3 – and the festival success of GalvestonMélanie Laurent‘s adaptation of Pizzolatto’s breakout novel – it’s fair to say that the writer is no longer the shooting star written about breathlessly in the pages of high culture magazines. Much of our understanding of Nic Pizzolatto comes from a singular interview in Vanity Fair, one that positions Pizzolatto as the harbinger of a new era of television auteurism. In that piece, Rich Cohen, a former co-writer and colleague, constructed what can only be described as the Myth of Pizzolatto: an ode to his brilliance and stubbornness in equal measure that resulted in a unique show like True Detective. Now, we’re left to try and pick up the pieces of that reputation and see what we really actually know about the man three seasons in.

Some of our assumptions do seem to be correct. In a conversation with The Daily Beast, for example, Pizzolatto expressed a singular lack of interest in working within a traditional writers’ room. “Do I want to spend my days in my place of interiority actually creating,” Pizzolatto explained, “or do I want to be sitting at a table talking about creating?” The interview concludes with Pizzolatto looking ahead to Season 2, admitting that his only hope of delivering a “full and dense and rich” follow up to Season 1 is to repeat this process a second time. There’s also his comments to the Los Angeles Times that same year, where Pizzolatto explained why television – not filmmaking – would always be his drug of choice. “I didn’t come to Hollywood to be subservient to anyone else’s vision.” We take the concept of prestige television for granted these days, but here was Pizzolatto, openly disparaging the flashiness of the film industry in favor of the power he would wield as a television writer.

Of course, Nic Pizzolatto is doing everything we demand of our visionary writers and directors. Like most great creators, he’s shown a complete fearlessness in the face of criticism, refusing to back down even when the people writing his paychecks are given a reason for pause. “We just couldn’t figure out if it was going to work or not,” executive producer Richard Brown told Vanity Fair back in 2015, “and Nic Pizzolatto said, ‘This is the best thing ever made, and it’s going to be a massive smash.’ And he was right.” The creative process in Hollywood has always served as a double-edged sword. If your project works, you’re a genius and a visionary. If it doesn’t, you’re an asshole. True Detective Season 1 made Pizzolatto one thing; Season 2, and the noticeable departure of Fukunaga as the series director made the writer something else entirely in the eyes of his fans.

Then again, the creative clashes between Pizzolatto and Fukunaga have been positioned by some writers as a difference in medium, not a difference in personality. In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, for example, series producer Scott Stephens described it as the difference between two men whose different backgrounds independently prepared them to be the single authorial voice on set. The tension between Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, Stephens argued, was typical of what happens when “you have a helmer from the world of film – known as a director’s medium – working in TV, more of a writer’s medium.” One common element in each of Pizzolatto’s profiles is his desire for creative control above all else, a desire that explains his disdain for writers’ rooms and his love of showrunners who are able to maintain their personal voice amidst the moving parts.

Creators like David Milch. Throughout Hollywood history, the great creators have always made excuses to work alongside their inspirations. Spielberg was given the opportunity to bring Stanley Kubrick‘s final film project to life in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Paul Thomas Anderson served as a pinch-hitter on Robert Altman‘s Prairie Home Companion. And Pizzolatto, in that original Vanity Fair interview with Rich Cohen, describes how influential David Milch was to his work. “Long before Deadwood, he was producing excellent work within the network system. You can tell a David Milch anything,” Pizzolatto said. “He’s managed to make deeply personal things that appeal to a wide audience because of this great equalizing medium of television.” Milch’s participation in Season 3 may have seemed like one too many mercurial artists for the show to survive, but at the end of the day, it was another filmmaker – Jeremy Saulnier – who was cast aside while the legendary showrunner has avoided any signs of discord.

Fans have expressed dismay at the departure of Saulnier, a filmmaker as at-home in tales of isolation and violence as anyone working in the industry today. Then again, who really thought that Pizzolatto and Saulnier would manage to maintain their uneasy partnership through to the end? However, you feel about Pizzolatto as a writer, his stated goal – to remain a singular authorial voice in whatever projects bear his name – meant that he was likely never going to play nice with someone who wanted the final word on any Hollywood project. As we impatiently await the arrival of Season 3 of True Detective, all we can do is hope that some combination of Pizzolatto, Milch, and Saulnier spells creative success for HBO. Some, like myself, may not be disappointed by another ambitious mess like the show’s second season, but the clock is definitely ticking on television’s golden boy. Let’s see if the move behind the camera is everything he hoped it would be.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)